The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – Reactions to Vietnamese Food Outside Vietnam

Nem Chua - Budget eats in Hanoi

With some of the tastiest street-food in the world, it’s no surprise that Vietnamese dishes are being exported, reworked and chomped down on anywhere from New York, to Dublin, to Melbourne. I remember my first contact with Vietnamese food in Barcelona sent my taste buds into such a frenzy I had half a mind to get on a plane to Vietnam before I could even order any type of chè (dessert). Others I’ve spoken to haven’t been so fortunate.

It seems there is a general consensus that the nation’s culinary essence has proven difficult to transport elsewhere authentically (not to mention at extortionate prices) and many complain of struggling to find a satisfying match outside of Vietnam.

Pho Resourceful Vietnam

I asked people living here, both local and foreigner, what their experience had been seeking out legitimate Vietnamese bites abroad and the answers have certainly been… varied. From some unsuspecting prawns in a bowl of Irish pho to bun cha with overcooked spaghetti instead of rice noodles in Bangkok, more often than not food is getting lost in translation.

The first person I spoke to was Yen, a native Hanoian who is no stranger to travel and has previously lived in America for seven years. Interestingly she found that neighbouring South East Asian countries such as Singapore or Thailand fell flat on taste, and it was in fact the States that trumped all in terms of accuracy to original flavours (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

She always had her eyes peeled for a convincing Vietnamese joint, and after visiting 14 American states, her conclusion was that, unsurprisingly, a higher number of Vietnamese population translated into more restaurants and better quality of food. However, due to the waves of immigration from the South after the Vietnam War, cuisine is more likely to be favoured from this region of the country than the North. Not only is this true in America but it’s an experience shared by almost everyone I spoke to, determining that Northern-style cooking was extremely rare to come by in most regions of the world (business idea, anyone? You’re welcome).

Banh Mi - eating in Hanoi

Seasoned traveller Ike has been in and out of Vietnam for work and travel since 2012 and also makes a point to try Vietnamese food in every city he goes to. The best banh mi he ever had was in Melbourne – go figure. “It shits on anything I’ve ever tried in Hanoi,” in his words. Even my sorry-ass vegetarian mouth couldn’t help but salivate at his description of marinated pork, perfect blend of veggies and chilli, wrapped in doughy tiger bread and an extra serving of crackling for added oomph.

Perhaps the worst recount of experiences came from multi-cuisine restaurants in less urban areas in the States, where the same hands that were rolling fresh spring rolls were also frying some chicken, tossing up some Pad Thai and taking a pan of french fries out of the oven. Not exactly aligned with the Vietnamese style of family-run home cooking.

Bún chả Mai Anh - Xuân Diệu (6)

Another local from Hanoi, Minh, studied abroad in Connecticut and recounts that it’s probable some really terrible food could have tasted half-decent simply because he missed his home food so much. Although he does recall with some contempt a particular bun cha he had in New Haven. Instead of having the grilled meat, vegetables and noodles in separate plates in typical Vietnamese DIY fashion, the Americans, in what some might call sacrilege, just tossed it all in one big-ass bowl and hoped for the best. Or the worst, in this case.

According to Minh, some of the best pho he’s had is sold on the street where he grew up, and although it sounds like you can’t get more authentic your own neighbourhood, he says a lot of his friends disagree.

Bún chả Mai Anh - Xuân Diệu (8)

This idea of an “original taste” then, could be up for debate, tainted by geographic location, historical influences and even personal preference. Minh told me a story of two brothers who had the same exact recipe from their father and opened up two separate restaurants in Hanoi and somehow still ending up with different versions of pho (google “Phở Sướng” if you’re curious to do a taste test).

A testament to how much our personal palette can affect our perceptions of food abroad is Harry, an Aussie friend of mine who, like me, was introduced to the cuisine in his own city, Brisbane, where it was all Southern-style galore. When he later moved to Hanoi he found the saltier and spicier version of the dish simply didn’t cut it. Slowly he became accustomed to the taste, and when he went home to visit relatives months later, gearing up to feast upon what he remembered as being the best Vietnamese food he’d ever had, he was gravely disappointed and unable to stomach the sweetness.

Viejun cuisine

Viejun food (Nikky Tran’s famous take on Viet-Cajun cuisine) pictured at Cau Ba Quan, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Yves Schiepek.

The last person I spoke to, Joseph, brought up an interesting point about the multitude of ways food can get interpreted and reworked when brought to another country. He told me about a particularly up and coming cuisine in Houston called Viet-Cajun food, born from an inherently American ingredient: crawfish, and infused with traditional flavours from Vietnamese refugees during the war. An unusual mix, and apparently met with some pushback from devotees who favoured the traditions of deep-rooted food cultures.

If you think about it, Vietnam is the king of culinary fusion – after all, the country’s beloved pho as we know it today only came as a result of the popularisation of beef due to French demand in the 20th Century, not to mention influences from other neighbouring nations throughout the years. It only seems right then, to celebrate this diversity in all its shapes and forms around the world. Well, perhaps with the exception of soggy spaghetti noodles. We all have boundaries.

Spring rolls

Chopsticks, Hanoi. Photo by Claudia Garcia for HOT TABLE.

Cheesy Pie (3)

© HOT TABLE. All photography by Mi Nguyen (unless credited otherwise).

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